Writing in Interactive Fiction


Descriptions need to be pointed - too often I’ve read a description like that of Marbolc and spent the next ten minutes trying to interact with him, only to realize that he’s effectively scenery. Likewise, I’ve spend ages roaming a map trying to find something that was only mentioned in the middle of a room description. If you’re describing something that isn’t important, describe it in such a way that the players can figure that out:

x stream
The stream meanders along, far below. The clear, shallow water looks cool and inviting. (This describes the stream, and may set it up for when you light yourself on fire later)
The stream meanders along, far below. (This description tells me about the stream, but it’s short enough that I’ll assume it’s unimportant)
The stream, a tributary of the Greater Sooma, meanders along, far below. The clear, shallow water gently bubbles over smooth stones, glinting in the bright sunlight. Occasionally, a leaf or stick floats by on its surface, or a fish splashes in the shallows. (This stream better be an important part of the story, including floating things in it, catching fish from it, and probably digging up river rocks, and possibly even traveling to the Greater Sooma)

If you wanted the stream to be unimportant in the long run, but still wanted to put in information about it, you should include a dictionary in the game; looking at the stream gives you a basic description, while the dictionary would give you the long, flowing, largely useless prose.

Something else to add - remember that IF can include dynamic statements. As you look at the stream, you could note leaves floating in it one time, a fish the next time, and a frog leaping in the next time. Even if the stream isn’t important, it’s still an active part of the game, and should be used to progress the story. If it’s not part of the story at all, it probably shouldn’t be in the game…



Interesting post, ArmanX - you had me going from yes, exactly! to no, no, no in a few lines, excellent writing. :slight_smile:

Absolutely. I agree. This is annoying.

From the rest of the post, I don’t think this is what you mean. Maybe I’m misreading you (if so I’m sorry), but I think you mean the other way around: if it’s not important to the game, it shouldn’t be in the story.

And I don’t agree with this, not as a general advice in IF writing. I think the advice should be more like “If you’re aiming to do tight, game-centric, puzzle-type IF, then don’t bring up stuff that’s irrelevant to the puzzles”. And to that I agree as well, but for IF that’s more focused on telling a story and less on being a game maybe that advice is not exactly on the spot. The problem then becomes one of letting the player know what parts of the prose are related to things the player character should do, and what parts are more aimed at telling a story to the player.

The concept of affordances in design (mainly introduced by Donald Norman I think – see e.g. jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and_desi.html) has to tie in to this somehow - it’s all about letting people know what things to do (knobs are for turning, buttons for pushing, sliders for sliding…).

And I don’t have all the answers, but it seems that in real life we manage to go around not picking up every portable object, and not looking under every rug. I’m usually not even that annoyed that there are doors in the city that appear to be perpetually locked (although, in honesty, there are at least two locks in Stockholm that really bug me). There’s something about the history of puzzle-based IF that makes us assume that every thing in the IF world is related to a puzzle, that it should either have A Purpose or else be justly banished from the world and publicly ridiculed as a red herring. This is understandable: if you make a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle your players will be very frustrated if you slip in some extra pieces in there. (But even in a jigsaw puzzle, there are two levels: the actual pieces, and the images on them.)

The problem is letting the player know what to try. One solution is simply removing all the other stuff, so that all that’s left are things that you should interact with to keep the story going (Exactly 1000 pcs in the box). Another solution is maybe trying harder to draw attention to the things in the game world that the player character is expected to interact with: in Norman’s terms, to learn to use the perceived affordance to guide the user to try the right things. Unfortunately Norman mainly discusses GUIs and teapots, not interactive text worlds.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should put all the things you can interact with in bold font, I’m talking about learning the tricks to do this in the description of things.



Actually, I meant it as I said it; if something isn’t in the story you’re telling, then you shouldn’t put it in the game. When Bilbo Baggins found the One Ring, it was a magic ring that could turn him invisible - nothing more. It didn’t need to be more. It had a huge backstory, dark magic that twisted even the elves… but that wasn’t important to The Hobbit. Likewise, the bubbling stream may very well have been a tributary of the Greater Sooma, but if that one glance was all anyone would ever interact with that stream, then no one cares about it. Adding scenery is great and all, but if scenery outnumbers ‘useful’ things more than three to one, you’ve probably padded your game too much. I believe the term is “purple prose” - or perhaps “purple scenery,” in this case.

Fun fact I just learned: the term ‘purple prose’ was coined from a poem by Horace:
“Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy
purple patches; as when describing
a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana,
or a stream meandering through fields,
or the river Rhine, or a rainbow;
but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render
a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint
a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?”
-Horace, Ars Poetica

…which is exactly the point. I don’t mind if there are a lot of ‘red herrings’ for puzzles, because frankly, the story is more important to me than the puzzles themselves, and I’d rather be stuck carrying around a worn baseball for an entire game than to be told flat-out “that’s not important”. However, if absolutely everything can be moved, opened, unlocked, manipulated, or otherwise handled, it puts me at a loss as to what to do. The story gets lost in the details. Like The Hobbit, a story should include enough detail to hint at a much, much larger world, and yet stay limited to the one the player is in.

The story is the most important part, even more important than the puzzles, and descriptions should reflect that.



Actually, I meant it as I said it; if something isn’t in the story you’re telling, then you shouldn’t put it in the game. When Bilbo Baggins found the One Ring, it was a magic ring that could turn him invisible - nothing more. It didn’t need to be more. It had a huge backstory, dark magic that twisted even the elves… but that wasn’t important to The Hobbit. Likewise, the bubbling stream may very well have been a tributary of the Greater Sooma, but if that one glance was all anyone would ever interact with that stream, then no one cares about it. Adding scenery is great and all, but if scenery outnumbers ‘useful’ things more than three to one, you’ve probably padded your game too much. I believe the term is “purple prose” - or perhaps “purple scenery,” in this case.
This is generally true. The Victorians had this godawful tendency to write overblown, flowery descriptive prose at great length, and normally it’s (particularly to a modern reader) totally fucking unreadable. But the other day I started The Mill on the Floss and, damn, if its opening paragraphs aren’t exactly the same kind of luridly romantic scenery writing except really damn good. (Rule: if you’re good enough, you can break more or less any rule you want.)

Ah, now, that totally depends on the type of game. (The rules of writing for IF are all relative to the sort of game you want to make.) There are games where puzzles are more important than story. There are games where neither puzzles nor story are all that important, and the point of the game is dicking about and enjoying the scenery. There are games where the long-arc story doesn’t matter all that much, and the focus is on the moment-to-moment action, or on the tone of the prose, or whatever. Good writing will mean rather different things in each of these – true, a lot of the same principles will still apply, but what counts as too much scenery, or overwriting, will change substantially depending on the kind of experience that the author is aiming for. (Which points to another important principle: you need to know what effects you’re aiming for.)



I suppose it’s just semantics, but even in games where puzzles are more important than plot, it’s always the story that ties it together. Even in puzzle-heavy, plot-light games, there needs to be some sort of introduction to let the player know what’s going on, and the descriptions need to remain consistent. If it’s a flowery, grandiose kind of game, long rambling descriptions might be what’s called for; if it’s a stark, isolationist kid of game, it would probably be better to have terse, staccato descriptions. And if it’s a fun one-shot puzzle, then the language should reflect that - not long and flowery, not short and terse, but rather descriptive and neutral. Even purely puzzle-based games have a story, and if that story isn’t followed, the game ends up hurting for it. I’ve seen several brilliant puzzles that were ruined by badly-written descriptions.


(Finn Rosenløv) #26

Not necessarily a result of laziness. I’ve had complains from players because of my detailed description of objects. Apparently s/he thought they were important to the game since I had taken time to write so many details and dragged a bunch of unnecessary stuff around.
Should there be a difference between important objects and “scenery” objects?


(David Good) #27

Really? Some of the best games ever were because of the verbosity of the author. They could be really short games, but if the author wrote well it was worth playing.

Do players just want to rip through a game without reading them?



There are certainly players who are largely indifferent to writing (or, more accurately, to any quality of writing except for the efficient delivery of essential information, and the checking-off of items on their tropes wishlist). This is an audience like any other; you can ignore them or cater to them, as you see fit.


(David Good) #29

Interesting. Would it be feasible to have multiple room descriptions and display the short or verbose description accordingly? Certainly the description would need to contain required elements, and this would add complexity to the coding. I’m not sure I’d go that far to cater to that though.



Yes, there should be a difference. Here’s an example:

It’s a chair. (This is bad because it’s not really a description - the player knew it was a chair to begin with)
It’s a basic, ordinary chair. (Again, the player already knew this.)
It’s a simple, wooden, four-legged chair. (Much better; the player can now visualize this chair, adding details like ‘brown’, ‘slatted back’, etc.)
The simple, four-legged chair is just the right height to sit on. (Better still; the player has the information from the previous description, plus an action to try - ‘sit on chair’)
The simple, wooden chair rests on the floor, its four legs perfectly even. It seems to be just the right height to sit upon. A thin crack has worked its way up one leg, but it doesn’t seem to have diminished the stability of the chair at all. The seat is worn, and in need of varnish, but nonetheless looks comfortable. (This is bad again. The player will look for something to widen the crack in the chair, try to break the legs off, will hunt for varnish, will try to remove the varnish from the rest of the chair… and yet, this description doesn’t give any more useful information than the previous statement.)

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between a useful item and a useless item - which is fine. A few red herrings are quite all right. But if every object in the game is described the same - be it simply or at length - it’s hard to tell the difference between a puzzle and a red herring. There needs to be some uninteresting items to offset the interesting ones. In “real life”, there are some objects that are obviously junk; I could describe my front yard, for instance, as containing “various toys scattered about”, with a description of anything vaguely toylike as “It’s one of the toys scattered about the lawn.” I don’t need to name each toy, just point out that the yard is messy and move on.

Though, as maga said, there will always be a few people at either end of the spectrum - either they want a short novel for every item in the game, or they want “that’s not important” for everything that isn’t directly related to a puzzle. There’s no pleasing some people…



Maybe this is a good hint-type command. You may not have the energy to write hints about every single object, but there could be a marker for which things can safely be ignored.

(In Inform7, just something like: A thing is usually not important. The bed is important.)

And the player could test this:

> ignore chair
Yes, the chair is not important. 

> ignore bed
Not a good idea, the bed is an important object in this game.

Or of course expand this to a full-fledged object-based hint system:

> hint bed
Did you notice those scratches on the floor? (more hints available)



(Robert Rothman) #32

I guess I’m just old-fashioned, but my feeling is that if somebody is going to play a game, they should actually play the game (as opposed to having the game play itself). A player who expects an explicit “this is not important” response, triggered just by examining, for every object that doesn’t actually require doing something with it strikes me as extraordinarily lazy, and fundamentally inconsistent with the notion of interactivity. The point is not merely to type in commands, but to have to figure out what to do. To me, figuring out what is or is not important is a large part of the fun.

Robert Rothman


(Marco Innocenti) #33

This is the point-n-click essence of a game. You just can trigger every object over the others and the game solves itself.
By contrast, what I like in IF is the fact I may or may not be aware of what is important and what is scenery. I always thought (well, I’ve been thinking it when I was 16 and playing old-style games) that having a list of object in a room was rather annoying. Like a big red arrow pointing on what you have to interact with. This removes from the realism, imo.

So, I always try and “hide” objects in room description to avoid them being too obvious. Which led to some very uncomfortable puzzles in my game, according to the WHOLE audience. So, I guess it’s a bad habit. And maybe a bit hardcore, too.



I never said it would be “just by examining it”, I suggested this would be an explicit command - a type of hint when you’re feeling stuck and frustrated.

I’m not really surprised if some of you feel this is provocative or just plain silly - it certainly is not hard core.

I guess for some people trying and trying to solve a puzzle is the whole fun of IF, while for others it’s fun up to a point, and then you just want to call a friend. Or use a hint.

It’s interesting that “guess the verb” and maybe “guess the noun” are considered anti-patterns of IF design, while “guess the thing” is considered the pure essence of gameplay.

The situation I had in mind was when you’re trying to… Let’s say, find a way into a building, and you have an idea that involves using a large heavy object, and there’s a statue nearby, and you’re trying to figure out how the heck you’re going to get that statue to tumble. And after trying and trying, you just want to ask the game: ok, I’m not on the right track, am I? It’s not the statue? I can just ignore it, right?



I don’t know if this would make sense in an actual game, but I like the idea of an “ignore” verb. I’ve been thinking on and off about how to model an intoxicated or otherwise unreliable PC, and being required to “ignore” distractions might be a cool way to do that (provided it was hinted well enough to avoid guess-the-verb).



Heh, you’re right, that could be pretty fun… the world around you is really distracting, and you have to ‘ignore’ objects until you can focus. Anything from flashing lights, to birds, to visually detailed object. The screen would be full of messages:

>x bed It's all too much! The birds sing like drunken barflies. The TV blares a vivid, overly-loud commercial. The picture on the wall is vividly bright! The refrigerator hums, an off-tune rattle. The cat purrs like a freight train on uneven tracks. The breeze blows hazy dust particles all over the furniture. [...] The cars outside roar past like angry hunting dogs. Your head is pounding."
The more distractions there are, the smaller the chance of finishing a command - one or two, you’ll succeed, three of four, a small chance of failing, up to more than six, you fail almost every time.
And, to add to the “drunk think”, when you ignore something, it is only a hazy memory; ignoring a chair means if you try to sit on it later, you’ll get a message saying something like, “Wait… wasn’t there a chair here?”, until you ‘remember’ the object (“Oh, right, there is is!”)

…I think we’re a bit off topic, but I enjoy brain-storming too much :-/



Reminds me a bit of “Kissing the Buddha’s Feet”




What is lacking is organization to the whole passage. Description of a place needs to develop in an organized way, just as an argument needs to, and the structure of that organization must match with the way the human mind processes and understands locale.

Visual description should be organized in a way that matches the way humans organize visual information, description of embodied feeling or emotional feeling should be organized in ways that match those senses, and so forth.

To do this, consider the way that, if you were in the location, you would direct your attention from moment to moment.

If I can be forgiven for making the attempt-- Let’s look at the parts.

  • The immense magma river flows below effortlessly, although slow and patiently.
  • The whole cave is lit by its fiery belly.
  • From here you can see the broken pillar rising from the flames like a finger pointing the sky – a sky made of crumbling rocks and metal – and the stony walls surrounding the sight like the steps of a giant arena.
  • Below, the thin cornice cuts a distinct line on the side of it, losing itself in the distance inside a small passage to the west.
  • The piece of quartz you are standing on has resisted the quake’s onslaught and is now holding itself onto the rock like a cat on a tree trunk.
  • Something like steps rise from here to an alcove, up above and near the ceiling.
  • A faint cyanotic light pulsates inside it.
  • You can reach it to the northwest

The point of view this structure reveals is a DM’s point of view. It’s me looking in, considering the walls, the lighting, and working my way in to the player’s current options.

If I were there, I would probably attend to where I am, and my attention would then move outward.

–Now, I don’t mean to hold myself out as an expert IF writer. My own productivity is pretty limited. And clearly as a writer you could select from among many organizational principle. The “from where I am out” basic strategy, which I picked here, is just the one I picked. You might instead pick “the environment in,” or “panning left to right,” or so forth.

But do consciously pick an organizational strategy, and stick to it in your writing. Also something I like, and therefore do, is to drop one- or two-word hints early in a passage, which details are explained later. So I dropped “red-lit” well before I described the lava river.



(Chris Conley) #39

This is really, really good descriptive writing advice. Wow.


(Marco Innocenti) #40

Infact. I forgot to say thanks to Conrad cause I read the post yesterday in bed, via the iPhone.

I think I will think about this post every time I’ll write down a locale description.

Thanks a lot.